On my way to meet a girlfriend for an afternoon tea yesterday, I turned the radio on and was immediately pulled in to the last 15 minutes of an interview on Fresh Air with Allie Brosh, the author and artist of Hyperbole and a Half. Her honest voice talking about her very real and dark journey with depression held my attention.
The Wounded Shouldn’t Be Pressured Into Becoming the Encourager
And one statement has stuck with me. When she was asked about why it had been so hard to reach out to her mother or husband for help during her journey, especially when she was struggling with thoughts of suicide, Allie’s answer haunted me. Her answer was along the lines of, “Because I knew that once I told them, I’d have to deal with their emotions, and I knew I couldn’t handle that. Seeing them get all upset, hurt, or fearful would have put me in the place of comforter; comforting them, trying to assure them that I wouldn’t kill myself, etc. I was barely able to hold my own thoughts, let alone worry about receiving theirs.” The result? Someone who was suicidal suffered in silence for far too long.
Her profound answer resonated with me because that is indeed what so often happens when we confess our hidden/dark/shameful thoughts to friends and family. Automatically, instead of the attention staying on the person sharing, the person who is hearing it is filtering it through their brain, basically trying to answer the question, “How does this information affect me?”
Here are some examples:
- She tells me she had a miscarriage and I feel guilty for having kids.
- She tells me she’s been having an affair and I feel mad at her because my own family has been hurt by these types of actions.
- She tells me she’s depressed and I feel scared or responsible for trying to fix her.
- She tells me she’s been fired and I feel worried that our planned vacation together is going to have to be cancelled.
- She tells me she’s going through a divorce and I feel scared for my own marriage.
It’s not selfish or malicious as much as it’s the default response we feel through much of life: “What does this mean to me and my life?” We do it with nearly every piece of information, including when we’re watching the news, and are relieved when we can say, “Oh that’s so sad… glad it doesn’t affect me” and move on. But when it’s our friends, people we love and know, it more often than not will affect us. It just will. That’s the truth of being in relationship: we are connected and we impact each other.
But what maturity does for us is give us the awareness to whisper to ourselves, “Don’t make this about me right now… stay present for her. I will process my feelings later.” And later you should. So this isn’t an issue about ignoring your feelings, but an issue of knowing when it’s the right time and with whom you to ought to be processing them with. (I wrote a relevant post to this subject that gives you a visual to remind you that it’s not the person whose story it is that should be turning around and becoming your comforter or counselor.)
The Four Best Responses to Keep the Attention on the Story-Teller
I know that my default is to try to fix, encourage, share my own stories, or any number of other things that are done with good intentions. But I also know that in this moment– it’s less important that I feel like I fixed something and more important that she feel heard. So my mantra is “Keep this about her. Keep this about her. Keep this about her.”
So all this got me thinking about sharing the four things I try to remember to do whenever someone is sharing their pain with me:
- Affirm: Depending on the situation, appropriate affirmation can be as simple as “Thank you for having the courage to share that with me,” or it can be as bold as “Thank you for telling me this… I hope you know that I absolutely adore you and love you and this doesn’t change that one iota.” But affirmation after vulnerability is so important– it reminds the revealer that their honesty was heard and valued.
- Ask Feeling Questions: And then this is where we so often go awry because we usually start going into problem-solving mode (i.e. “My mom had someone who was diagnosed with that and she said that x helped her.”), encouragement mode (i.e. “No don’t feel that way! It’s all going to be okay!), or, if we do ask questions it’s often about the story and the details that really aren’t that important (i.e. “When did the affair start?”). When the very best thing we can do is let her keep talking and sharing about her experience. So favorite questions of mine, include anything that asks her to keep sharing her feelings: What did you feel when you first found out x? What has your experience been so far? How has this impacted your identity? What are you most scared of? What has been the most surprising part? What part of it do feel like is hardest for those around you to understand?
- Validate: To validate is to “demonstrate or support the truth or value of.” It doesn’t mean you have to support their decisions, agree with their assessment, or think you’d feel the same way in a similar circumstance. This isn’t you voting; you’re not saying “Yes, I think you have reason to commit suicide,” or “Yes, I’m in favor of divorce.” It’s you demonstrating that you have heard them and that their feelings are valuable. The goal then is hear their feelings (as opposed to the details/circumstances), tap into your own empathy with similar feelings, and try to say back to them what you heard them say. It can as simple as, “I ache with you and for you. I’m so very sorry you’re going through this.” Or it can be as detailed as saying, “Your feelings are totally valid! It makes sense that you’d feel betrayed.”
- Ask how you can help: And then a crucial and meaningful step is to ask, “How can I best support you right now?” If it’s someone you know well, you can offer as much as you’re comfortable extending: “How can I best support you right now? If you could ask for anything, what comes to mind? Do you need tangible things like rides to the hospital or a place to stay? Do you need me to call you regularly during this time? I know it’s hard to ask for detailed help… but I’d so appreciate you telling me what I can do that will be the most meaningful to you if you ever know it. I want to journey this with you.”
As always, I cherish hearing your feedback, your own stories, what part spoke you, or advice on this subject that you want to share with others.
Other relevant posts: